A few years ago, I was invited, along with a group of my friends, to a party at a waterfront mansion here in Fort Lauderdale. The house featured two elevators, about 20,000 square feet, and a living room that resembled an upscale hotel lobby.
As we stood in a small group marveling at a side of life we’d never seen, one of my friends said, “Doesn’t this make you wonder what you did wrong? I mean, why don’t we have houses like this?” My response: “Really? I was just thinking about how long it would take to walk from the garage back to the master bedroom when I left my keys on the nightstand.”
Since my first mansion party, I’ve been to many others. I’ve also ridden on mega-yachts, kicked back in vast home theaters, and otherwise enjoyed the spoils of other people’s good fortune. I’ve learned something along the way: It’s fun to know rich people. But I’ve also learned that trying to impress people with ostentatious displays often creates the opposite effect. In other words, things you think are earning envy may be causing people to think you look silly.
Here are some of my favorite examples…
1. An expensive sports car
“Want to see how fast it will go?”
That’s the question I’ve been asked all three times I’ve been a passenger in a Ferrari. My answer was consistent, “Please, no. I’m begging you.” It doesn’t work. Instead it’s zero to 100 in 5 seconds on a city street.
I’m sure there are lots of people who enjoy riding in loud, cramped cars that can theoretically go more than 200 miles an hour. I’m not one of them.
While these guys (yes, in my experience they’re always guys) probably imagine themselves envied at every traffic light, are they really getting the status they paid for? They’re getting attention, all right, but maybe not the kind they wanted. When I’m stopped next to a Ferrari, all I’m seeing is someone who’s combined a mid-life crisis with a big checkbook.
2. A boat
If you take a ride down the Intracoastal Waterway here in Fort Lauderdale, within 5 miles you’ll pass more than a hundred million dollars in largely unused boats.
But if boating’s a crime, I’m guilty. As I write this, I have two 30-foot boats docked behind my modest waterfront home. I love boating, and I love working on my boats. But the only advantage to actually owning one – especially a big, complicated one – is that it makes any other indulgences you have seem practically free. I’ve owned boats for many years, and I can state unequivocally that I’d be better off if I paid $1,000 to rent a boat for the day whenever the mood struck.
When someone asks me, “What’s the best boat?” I say, “Someone else’s.”
The only thing you can do to make boat ownership dumber is to borrow the money to buy one, or to buy a new one. Think cars depreciate when you drive them off the lot? Chickenfeed. Boats sink in value so rapidly, it’s truly astounding. They also tend to sit unused for long periods of time, which is the worst way to maintain one. And with gas prices where they are today, the cost of an all-day fishing trip is measured in the hundreds.
Boats are no way to stay afloat, and unless you have money to burn, this pastime may not bring you the status you think it will.
3. Plastic surgery
You think you look younger. What you might look like is someone who’s so insecure they had to pretend they weren’t getting older by getting plastic surgery. And don’t even get me started on breast enhancement, especially the (literally) over-the-top variety.
Tasteful jewelry, especially on women, can definitely add to one’s appearance. But if you’re wearing too much, you might as well just wear a dress made of $1,000 bills. It’s brassy, not classy. As for men, there’s a fine line between good and gaudy.
I get it: If you have millions of dollars, you’ve got to put it somewhere, and where you live is as good a place as any. But if you’re borrowing heavily to impress your friends with a house that’s way bigger than you need or can afford, you’re not looking rich, you’re looking crazy. Besides, who wants to walk the length of a football field to let the dog in?
Nothing wrong with having some maid service if you can afford it. But live-ins?
Maybe if I was rich for long enough, I could get used to the idea of having people I don’t know all that well living with me. But I’ve had friends with live-in drivers, butlers, cooks, and “personal assistants,” and to me it feels awkward having employees standing around. I’ve always wondered: Do rich people have to get dressed if they want to raid the refrigerator in the middle of the night?
It’s a house, not an office building. If it’s so big you need a bunch of employees to run it, maybe it’s too much.
Clothes may make the man, but super-expensive clothes might make that man look like he’s trying too hard. As with jewelry, there’s a fine line between good taste and tasteless.
In my 10 years as a stock broker, I learned there was an almost inverse relationship between a person’s true wealth and their apparent wealth. In other words, the guy in the jeans driving the station wagon is the rich one – the guy in the fancy suit driving the Porsche is the one trying to sell him stuff.
8. Conspicuous consumption
Last week a 23-year old currency trader racked up a $320,000 bar tab in a British night club. What fun! Upstaging your friends with gratuitous physical possessions or other forms of conspicuous consumption might do more than make you look rich: it might make you look shallow.
Ever see the bumper sticker, “He who dies with the most toys wins?” Dumber words were never spoken.
If you’ve got it, it’s no crime to flaunt it.
If you’ve spent money on items in the list above, you probably found my critique inaccurate – even insulting. That’s not my intention.
Having wealth is good and spending money is fun. So what separates the shallow nincompoop from someone leading a life well-lived? It isn’t about the amount of money you spend or what you spend it on. It’s all about why you’re spending it.
If you don’t like yourself or live in fear that others don’t like you, no amount of money or possessions will change that. That’s what makes you look dumb: spending to boost your self-esteem. On the other hand, if you like yourself and are spending to indulge a passion, or to make your life more interesting, good for you. You’re the type of spender I want to hang out with.
But I still don’t want to see how fast your Ferrari will go.